Bleed for This turns an incredible comeback into an enjoyable, if forgettable, sports drama.
Boxing has always had dueling identities in multiple senses of the word. On one side is the inherent sleaziness as violent men inflict physical harm on each other to the delight of crowds and promoters who make their living exploiting them. And yet simultaneously, it may be the most poetic sport – a physical challenge where individuals do literal battle to achieve their dreams and inspire their supporters. As is the case, the best films depicting the sport have embraced this duality of sadness and hope, from Rocky Balboa to The Fighter’s Micky Ward and everyone in between. And while the latest addition to the genre, Bleed for This, aims to showcase both sides, it’s commitment to feel-good inspiration keeps from ever truly breaking the mold.
Ben Younger’s film tells the real life story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a boxer out of Providence, Rhode Island trying to keep his career afloat. After being introduced to the alcoholic, down-on-his-luck trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) once known for training Mike Tyson, Vinny’s career is reborn. That is until a grisly car crash left Pazienza nearly paralyzed, seemingly ending his boxing career in what should’ve been his prime. Refusing to accept this fate, Pazienza opts for a riskier surgical procedure that allows for the slim chance to return to the ring and trains with Rooney for what would eventually be his grand comeback.
Much of what works in the film can be credited to Younger’s script and direction, which finds compelling ways to offer familiar elements from past boxing films. Especially in the recovery scenes, the film uses Pazienza’s weak physicality (Teller spends a sizable portion of the film in a head/spine brace) to great dramatic effect. Similarly, the treatment of the “requisite final boxing match” never feels like a forgone conclusion due to strong editing by Zachary Stuart-Pontier. The film’s performances are a bit more of a mixed bag. While Teller’s physical work in the lead is undeniably impressive, his performance seems a bit more emotionally one-note. Meanwhile Eckhart, nearly unrecognizable sporting a balding look, steals almost every scene he’s in, adding a sour, beaten-down charm to the familiar trainer archetype. In a supporting role, Ciarán Hinds gives his role as Pazienza’s father an affectionate arc.
What keeps the film from reaching the heights of a film like last year’s Creed, is ultimately it’s reliance on the familiar elements. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formulaic inclusions of training montages and an “all is lost moment”, the film fails to put it’s own unique spins on them. Elements such as Pazienza’s refusal to take drugs, including even a sedative during a stand-out medical scene, feels under-explored, as well as the more serious implications of Rooney’s substance abuse issues. Additionally there seems like darker elements that could’ve been emphasized further including Vinny’s managers’ willingness to risk his well being for a profit. While this reluctance never makes the film anything less than entertaining, it does ultimately keep it from ever being a true contender for the belt.
The film hits theaters this Friday.